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Master's Maneuver: Chess Champion Draws Line On Defending Titles Where 'Women's Rights Are Violated'

Anna Muzychuk celebrates after winning two gold medals in the World Chess Rapid and Blitz Championships 2016 in Doha in December 2016.

To Anna Muzychuk, passing up the opportunity to defend her dual titles at the world speed-chess championships this week in Saudi Arabia was difficult. But ultimately, the 27-year-old Ukrainian grand master concluded, she didn't want to compete in a country where "women's rights are violated."

"It's been an extremely difficult decision not to attend the tournament," Muzychuk told RFE/RL Russian Service in an exclusive interview on December 27. "After all, this is the world championship...and I am the reigning champion."

But Muzychuk stood by her earlier announcement that she would not travel to Riyadh, at the cost of losing her world speed-chess titles in both the disciplines of rapid and blitz, and is sitting out the competition taking place in the Saudi capital from December 26-30.

"I'm principally not attending the tournament because of what's been going in the country, where human rights, especially women's rights, are violated," Muzychuk said.

Muzychuk first announced her decision in a Facebook post in November, writing that she was bowing out in order "not to play by someone's rules, not to wear abaya, not to be accompanied getting outside, and altogether not to feel myself a secondary creature."

Joining her in sitting out the competition is her sister, Mariya Muzychuk, who was the women's world chess champion from 2015-16.

Women in the ultraconservative Sunni-ruled kingdom are required to wear an abaya, a loose-fitting and all-covering robe, in public.

Muzychuk told RFE/RL that "I understand that everyone -- including the [Saudis] -- have their own traditions and customs and that one needs to respect other people's traditions." But she said added that "I believe that no one should impose their traditions on other people; for instance, in terms of clothing, how to behave, and how to dress. I believe it's wrong."

Muzychuk said that she has traveled extensively to attend chess tournaments around the world and has never witnessed the violation of women's rights anywhere, except Iran.

Muzychuk wore a head scarf -- as demanded by Iranian authorities -- during the Women's World Chess Championship in Tehran earlier this year.

Anna Muzychuk (right) faces Chinese player Tan Zhongyi in the final of the Women's World Chess Championship in Tehran earlier this year.
Anna Muzychuk (right) faces Chinese player Tan Zhongyi in the final of the Women's World Chess Championship in Tehran earlier this year.

"We had to wear the hijab all the time and it was very uncomfortable," Muzychuk said, adding that the experience "played its role" in her decision to boycott the Saudi event.

"The issue of gender equality is much worse in Saudi Arabia," she said. "There are much stricter laws."

She noted that Saudi authorities appear to be taking some steps to improve women's rights, such as lifting a ban on women's driving that goes into effect next summer. The chess tournament in Riyadh has been seen by some as a tentative step toward opening up to the outside world as it pushes some social reforms.

The world chess governing body, FIDE, said in a November statement that tournament organizers had agreed that there would be "no need for female players to wear a hijab or abaya during the games" themselves.

Muzychuk is the current title holder in two disciplines of speed chess -- blitz and rapid. In blitz, each player gets 10 minutes to complete all their moves, and in rapid the players get 15 minutes.

Muzychuk has said she felt like "the happiest person in the chess world" when she won the dual titles in Doha last year. She previously won the women's world blitz championship in 2014.

By skipping the five-day tournament in Riyadh, Muzychuk will miss out on the opportunity to win a substantial amount of money -- a chance to "earn more than I do in a dozen events combined."

Saudi Arabia, which is hosting a world championship for the first time, is reportedly offering $250,000 in prize money for each of the women's events.

The tournament in Riyadh had already been hit by a controversy after Israeli players were denied visas.

Some 240 players -- both men and women -- from 70 countries were expected to compete at the championship.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on an interview conducted by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Aleksandr Gostev